The Confession of Julian Barnes

A friend of mine put me onto the Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) and his book, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith’s book, as it turns out, is “an idiot’s guide” (my words) to the massive tome (900 pages) of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Secular Age—a work recognized as a definitive analysis of our secular age. Smith describes Taylor’s work as “a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst” (ix) and sets out to make Taylor’s provocative conclusions accessible to the rest of us mortals.

Both Taylor and Smith turn to the memoir of the English writer Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a book Smith describes as “an existential map of our secular age” (4). In it Julian Barnes admits, “‘I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday School. I have never been to a normal church service in my life’” (5). I.e., his is the life most of us would consider secular.

And yet consider the poignant depth of the confession Barnes makes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” (5).

How many people today would identify with his confession: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”?

The striking point James Smith’s book drives home is that the world the church occupies today is a very changed world. The answers we’ve prepared in order to witness to our faith are questions seculars aren’t even asking. For many of them nothing is “missing” from their lives—“so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their ‘God-shaped hole.’ They don’t have any sense that the ‘secular’ lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor” (vii). I.e., this isn’t Paul’s Mars Hill (Acts 17) world where even the intellectuals are surrounded by their gods. “No, it seems that many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine” (ibid).

And yet in Julian Barnes’s confession we hear the faint longing of the secular heart. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” It’s what Taylor and Smith describe as the “haunting” of the secular mind, a longing for the transcendent (God) while embracing only the immanent (this world of here and now). Most of us, Smith observes, live in the in-between of these two worlds, “where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting”(4).

So shall we abandon any effort to connect with this secular age for Christ? Not at all. First, I think of John Stott’s counsel to Christians who want to witness to their faith, “Remember—the other man’s conscience is always on your side.” I.e., the Spirit of God impresses divine truth via the conscience. Thus the “haunting” that Julian Barnes’s confession intimates reflects the light planted deep within the heart, “the true light, which enlightens everyone . . .” John 1:9 NRSV emphasis supplied). Or as Paul put it: “God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). Good news—no one you meet is beyond the reach of God.

Second, the power of love may be the most persuasive argument God can make—through you. A 900-page tome would be enough to scare anyone away from plunging into our secular world for Christ. But intellectual prowess is hardly ever overcome by a matching wit. The power of change is embedded in selfless love. “The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (Ministry of Healing 470).

Two reasons why you are just what God needs to love the Julian Barnes’s of this world back to Him. They don’t believe in Him, but they miss Him—you know Him, and you love them—talking about a match made in heaven—let’s go!